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Australia slides further into the Iraq quagmire
The tragic inevitability of a forlorn hope

24 February 2005

John Howard’s decision to double Australia’s ground troop commitment in Iraq was inevitable. The prime minister put off the inevitable for as long as he could, but Australia’s slavish adherence to the American alliance left him no option but to dispatch more troops to George Bush's mad neo-colonial adventure. His justification of the decision as necessary to stop the Coalition crumbling put a desperate spin on the situation that’s at odds with Washington’s upbeat line on post-election Iraq.

It also signaled that the 450 extra Australian troops will not be the last. A host of other nations that originally committed a few troops to curry favour with the US have already pulled out or will shortly do so, making increases in the Australian contingent, beyond those just announced, inevitable (and indeed Howard pointedly did not rule out further increases).

The Sydney Morning Herald headlined the decision as a “Surprise doubling of forces in Iraq” (23 February 05). It is nothing of the sort. After the Coalition’s failure to quickly subdue Iraqi opposition to the occupation, it was a sure thing. Since late 2003, the only question has been how long Howard could fob George Bush off. No doubt he argued that it would be politically dangerous, if not fatal, to announce an increased commitment before last year’s federal election, but once he’d won with a safe majority, the American pressure on him would have redoubled.

Forlorn hope

Tragically, history is repeating itself. Cabinet documents recently released under the 50-year rule show that, in 1954, Liberal (conservative) Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, and key figures in his Cabinet were extremely gloomy about the prospects for success in an American war against nationalists in Indochina. The following handwritten notes, taken down by Cabinet Secretary Allen Brown, give some of the flavour of the misgivings of the leaders of a government that was, a decade later, to commit Australian ground troops to Vietnam:

Larry Anthony, Postmaster-General: "It is only the support of the US which will enable us to hold Australia ... We have to stick with the US, even when it's wrong."

Richard Casey, Minister for External Affairs: "You should have a defined objective in war. The US has never done this."

Robert Menzies: "We are being asked to participate in a forlorn hope ... The US are not incapable of unreality ... I do not believe that the US has thought this out ... How can we justify a war which will fail, merely to keep in with the US?"

I wondered, when I read these lines, whether Menzies was aware of the origin of the expression ‘forlorn hope’. It’s an English corruption of the Dutch military term verloren hoop, literally ‘lost troop’ – enthusiastic young soldiers dispatched to storm the walls of an enemy fortification on the unlikely chance that they would succeed, and render a long siege unnecessary.

The ‘forlorn hope’ to which Menzies referred was an open-ended US war against the forces of nationalism in Indochina, a project that US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles secretly proposed Australia should join. Dulles' approach took place even before the defeat of the French forces at Dien Bien Phu.

In February 1954, with Menzies wanting an election in late May, Cabinet was anxious not to reveal to the Australian people either that they were considering Dulles' proposal, or their misgivings about American foreign policy.

In the upshot, the US frustrated the holding of a planned referendum to unify Vietnam, installed a puppet administration in Saigon and managed to “stabilize” the situation for some years.

Sliding into the quagmire

In 1962, eight years after Cabinet pondered Dulles' request, 30 Australian military “advisors” were committed to Vietnam. Over the next two years this team was gradually increased to a hundred.

In November 1964 a conscription (“National Service”) bill was voted through the Australian Parliament. It was justified on the basis that a general increase in the size of the armed forces (then somewhat depleted by a failure to attract volunteers during a period of full employment) was required in order to “defend Australia” against “Communist terrorism”.

The measure consisted of limited call-up by ballot of 20 year olds for two years’ service “at home or abroad”. The first draft, 4,200 20-year-old men, took place in the latter half of 1965. From then on there were annual call-ups in which 6,900 young men were drafted.

In mid 1965 Australia sent an infantry battalion to Vietnam. Air and naval forces were added and, in 1966, the infantry component was increased to two battalions. Finally, there was a Task Force of three battalions with supporting armour, engineer, artillery and logistics units. The force graduated from essentially defensive tasks to offensive operations. At its height in 1968-69 the Australian commitment reached 8,000 men. Our “great and powerful ally” lost the Vietnam War after devastating the entire country and Cambodia to boot. Ultimately, just short of 500 Australians died and almost 2400 were wounded.

Don’t mention the war

Until now, The Howard Government and their media shills have been at pains to play down the extent or importance of Australia’s commitment to the Iraq war. Like the Menzies Cabinet, they know a lot more than they are prepared to tell the Australian public.

In 1954, Robert Menzies was an ardent Anglophile with genuine fears about the outcome of American foreign policy in Indochina. Nevertheless, over the following years, as Britain withdrew from its empire and refused to get involved in Vietnam, he overcame his hesitations and initiated our long slide into the Vietnam quagmire – a war in which Australia had no compelling strategic interest – merely to maintain the dubious benefits of an alliance with the world’s biggest imperialist power.

Half a century after John Foster Dulles first approached the Menzies Government with his disastrous proposal, John Howard and his cabinet remain nostalgic Anglophiles and slavish supporters of the American alliance.

Unless the 50-year embargo on cabinet documents is significantly reduced, few of us alive today will learn what Howard or his ministers said during the key cabinet talks that determined our entry into another American adventure. In an epoch when all responsible experts are warning that oil availability must soon peak before going into a steady decline, I will hazard an educated guess that high among the factors discussed was the need to ensure our oil-profligate economy a continued supply of cheap Middle East crude. We can only wonder whether any member of Cabinet advocated a different, less risky, policy than gambling on a US victory, or whether their minds were totally closed to an alternative, independent, approach.

In spite of their hesitations (inspired no doubt by the likely electoral consequences of a more openly bellicose stance) the Howard Government will, in the final analysis, go along with whatever the US demands, and all the more so because Britain remains in Iraq.

Howard knows the Iraq "elections" solved nothing. The Sunni resistance continues unabated – an armed boycott that remains the most powerful card in the Iraqi political pack. A pro-Iranian, Islamist-dominated anti-secular administration is taking what little power the Americans will allow them in Baghdad (or rather, its Green Zone). Inevitably, they will become angry and disaffected, and all this while the neocons try hard to provoke a war against Iran or its close ally, Syria, setting the stage for a fresh outbreak of armed resistance in southern Iraq, where Australia’s new troop commitment will be based.

No Australian should be fooled by the government’s strategy of downplaying our participation in this war. We can be sure that grim scenarios and hard realities are being discussed in Canberra. Chief among these will be the problem of boosting our tiny army to a level compatible with a commitment of several thousand troops for some years in Iraq (or maybe Iran or Syria). In a situation where very few young Australians will be willing to volunteer for the war, we can be sure that some form of conscription is being contemplated, and perhaps draft legislation prepared. It would be irresponsible to believe the government’s inevitable denials, because the iron logic of their latest decision demands a big increase in the size of the army. If Australia needed conscription in 1964 to maintain just a couple of infantry battalions in Vietnam, there’s no chance we could double our new Iraq commitment without resorting to the draft.

With tragic inevitability, the spectre of conscription is marching towards us.


Next assignment: the invasion of Indonesia
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition
23 August 2007
Don’t imagine for a second that the election of a Democrat to the US presidency would signal a less bellicose America – advisers to presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton say the difference would just be a matter of “style” and they’re spinning the need for more Australian “engagement” in American adventures abroad.